No one is quite what they seem in this extravagant romp about deceptive Londoners on the make.
Sexy, saucy and downright dirty, Thomas Middleton’s comedy may date from 1605, but its Jacobean take on the seedy side of life translates perfectly to 1950s Soho, in Sean Foley’s RSC revival.
First performed in 2013, this is a welcome return for a show that combines a thrilling musical heart with some inspired comic turns.
Foley has been ruthless with Middleton’s script, hacking away a fifth of it, updating names and adapting 400-year-old jokes to make them work for modern ears. That all seems fair enough – and if anyone objects to Sir Bounteous Progress having his surname changed to Peersucker, well, at least we get the idea that he’s a toady when it comes to titles.
Small wonder that his greedy nephew, Dick Follywit, attempts to speed up his inheritance by pretending to be a Lord to fox his gullible uncle, played with lascivious bonhomie by Ian Redford.
Meanwhile, dull Mr Littledick fears his wife will play false – as indeed she does, with the magnificently named Penitent Brothel, aided and abetted by ally Truly Kidman.
Kidman is a dissembler, switching easily from streetwise prostitute to man-hating virgin or Irish nun, as it suits her purpose. It’s a jewel of a role and Sarah Ridgeway fulfils all its comic possibilities.
She joins forces with Ellie Beaven as desperate housewife Mrs Littledick, who wriggles out of her husband’s embrace but indulges her true desires with a little help from her friend.
Joe Bannister brings charm and charisma to Dick Follywit, a man who, strictly speaking, is really little more than an swindler. And his elegant cross-dressing turn in the second half proves once again that few things make Brits laugh more than a man with a well-turned ankle wearing a dress.
With this gown, and the real women’s dresses, designer Alice Power has excelled herself. The costumes are stunning, from the Fifties dirndl skirts right down to Sir Bounteous’s hideous string vest and pants ensemble.
There’s also a parade of spangled dresses for jazz singer Linda John Pierre, whose velvet voice lifts the show’s nightclub into another league. She also helps to beef up the rather charming idea of the leads each contributing a solo song, like Truly Kidman’s Ain’t Nobody’s Business.
The music is a real strength, though the show opens with such a long-drawn-out number that it takes a while for the speaking actors to whip up the atmosphere once the play itself gets going.
Foley has gone for a straight-up farcical comedy, and there’s not much subtlety about the characterisations. But then Middleton isn’t very subtle about them either.
And with a lively cast, a roistering story and the biggest collection of innuendoes this side of the Carry On movies, A Mad World, My Masters is a steamy and hugely entertaining affair.
• At the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street until May 9. Age guidance 14+.
Ticket Hotline 0844 800 1110, Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm. rsc.org.uk
Barbican ticket line 01752 26713, barbicantheatre.co.uk
• Thu 7 May, 7.30pm
• Thu 7 May
Post show talk with live captioning
Free to same-day ticket holders
• Fri 8 May, 7.30pm
with Touch Tour (6.30–7pm)